N.C. Film Office director Aaron Syrett reviews the state of film production | Film Beat | Indy Week
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N.C. Film Office director Aaron Syrett reviews the state of film production 

Jennifer Lawrence on the set of "The Hunger Games" in Burke County

Photo by Murray Close

Jennifer Lawrence on the set of "The Hunger Games" in Burke County

After several years where North Carolina had a lower profile for film and TV production, the state has found itself back in the news in the second half of 2011, with dystopian futures and high-tech comic book superheroes bringing some of the state's biggest film projects ever. But what do these new productions mean for the state, and how does it plan to build upon these coups?

Film and TV production in North Carolina seemed to have peaked with Dawson's Creek filming in Wilmington in the late 1990s, with TV movies drying up and many larger films heading elsewhere (most infamously, the 2003 film of Cold Mountain eschewed the book's North Carolina location to shoot most of the story in Romania).

But 2011 got a massive boost when the hotly anticipated adaptation of the hit YA novel The Hunger Games, starring Winter's Bone Oscar nominee Jennifer Lawrence, filmed in Burke County, in the Western foothills, over the summer. The shoot, intensely scrutinized by the likes of MTV and Entertainment Weekly (among others expecting the films to be the next Twilight), brought new attention to the area—attention that was only renewed toward the end of the year when it was announced that Iron Man 3 with Robert Downey Jr. was going to film in Wilmington in 2012.

"With The Hunger Games, we saw it being optioned so we kept track of that and recruited it very heavily," says Aaron Syrett, director of the North Carolina Film Office. "We got the director and production designer and producers out here a few times, and we were eventually able to get it for what was the biggest movie ever filmed in North Carolina at that time. We'd read the books and understood the ramifications it could have in theaters, like Twilight, so we were very excited about that, and then Iron Man came along."

Syrett says that 2011 showed exponential growth in film and TV production from 2010. "Last year we probably had around $75–$76 million in direct spending in 2010," Syrett says. "In 2011, we jumped up to over $220 million in direct spending in film, and next year we already have $450 million committed. So it's going to be another big year.

"Our film industry is certainly back, and we're moving to be one of the top destinations in the country."

Syrett credits Gov. Bev Perdue and the state legislature's signing new film incentives into law in 2011 for attracting the new productions.

"It made North Carolina's incentives, if not the most aggressive in the United States, at least the smartest," Syrett says. "We were able to leverage our industry's infrastructure with the incentives, and I think that's put us in the top five most competitive states in the United States."

This line of thinking runs contrary to some states—in 2010, the state of Washington voted to get rid of film incentives altogether, following Kansas suspending its incentives. Last month, Michigan voted to cap incentives, although a few months before, the Michigan Film Office said incentives were what led to its losing Iron Man 3 to North Carolina.

There have also been national arguments against the validity of film production incentives. In 2010, a study by the Tax Foundation in Washington, D.C., argued that incentives offered only "Blockbuster Support for Lackluster Policy," claiming that the incentives did not spur economic growth or raise tax revenue.

Syrett objects to these arguments, citing numbers form the N.C. Film Office. According to Syrett, in 2011 the state film office has already tracked $220.5 million spent on film and TV production, with 3,394 crew jobs and 623 talent jobs created, along with 22,602 extra days. "That's money spent directly to North Carolinians—wages, benefits and money turned over into the economy," Syrett says.

"Without the incentives, those numbers would be zero."

According to Syrett, the new film incentives "took off almost immediately," with North Carolina receiving part of the production for the big-budget sequel Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, which also stars Josh Hutcherson from The Hunger Games. He says that while much of the water and special effects work for Journey took place in North Carolina, much of the location shooting occurred in Hawaii, while post-production happened back in California.

"Right now, that's one area of our industry we need to work on building—post-production and visual effects," Syrett says. "We have a lot of people working in video games, and those skills would probably translate to effects work, but they're slightly different. I see a time when those start to merge a little bit more, but right now, video games and visual effects are two different skill sets."

On the other hand, one advantage North Carolina does have is its ability to stand in for other areas. One of the fall's most acclaimed new TV series, Showtime's Homeland with Claire Danes, Damien Lewis and Mandy Patinkin, films in Charlotte, which stands in for the Washington, D.C., area. The series, which has already been renewed for a second season (let's hope terrorists keep threatening our country), could shoot some exterior scenes in Raleigh next year, according to Syrett, who adds that it's part of a goal to establish "equilibrium" in bringing film productions to different parts of the state beyond Wilmington.

Of course, Wilmington remains the epicenter for TV production in the state, though not without some setbacks. Earlier this year, the pilots for the now-hit ABC series Revenge and the CW's Hart of Dixie both filmed in Wilmington but moved to Los Angeles when they were picked up [for a series] due to cast and crew wanting to be closer to their families.

"It's something we deal with every year in pilot season," Syrett says. "Obviously, they weren't worried about the incentives—I don't believe they're getting one in California. It's not anything North Carolina did wrong—it'd probably be less expensive for them to shoot here, but they were able to make LA work for their business needs, so good for them."

Next year also sees the end of One Tree Hill, which will conclude after nine seasons to become the second-longest-running teen drama after the original Beverly Hills, 90210. With its conclusion, it'll be the first time Wilmington has been without a regular TV series filming there since 1997, when Dawson's Creek began.

Though Hill launched with no fanfare and has often been the subject of critical mockery, Syrett says that that the series probably brought "half a billion dollars" into North Carolina's economy over its nine seasons.

"It meant hundreds of well-paying jobs for actors and technicians, along with local merchants—the guy who sold them blinds or curtains, or the people who provided costumes and props," Syrett says. "This past week, they actually had a three-day auction of everything they sold off. It's amazing how much money they put into North Carolina's economy."

Asked what he thought of such storylines as the one where a villain lost out on a heart transplant when a dog ate his donor heart, Syrett is only able to laugh: "They created a lot of jobs!"

For next year, Syrett's goal is to get $275 million in direct spending in North Carolina, a goal he feels the state will be able to reach. Along with getting another TV series and establishing post-production facilities, his goal is to "make North Carolina's brand global" by attracting more international productions.

"People want to be here," he says. "We just have to make it feasible for them."

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